Priests have as their primary duty the proclamation of the Gospel of God to all. For through the saving Word the spark of faith is struck in the hearts of unbelievers, and fed into the hearts of the faithful. — Presbyterorum Ordinis, No. 4 

When Pope John XXIII announced the Second Vatican Council, one of the pressing issues he wanted to address was what he called a “grave state of spiritual poverty in the world.” If “spiritual poverty” was the thing the Council wanted to address, it is no wonder that one of the greatest teachings to come out of that Council was what became known as “the universal call to holiness.” 

In his apostolic letter, At the Beginning of the New Millennium (Novo Millennio Ineunte), Pope John Paul II reflected at length on the practical significance of the Council’s theology of “the universal call to holiness” that had been laid out so beautifully in chapter five of Lumen Gentium. “The Council Fathers,” he wrote, “laid such stress on the idea of the universal call to holiness in order to make it an intrinsic and essential aspect of the teaching on the Church.” Lumen Gentium stressed the point that “. . . it is evident to everyone that all of the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity.” 

The idea behind this article — claiming your pulpit for spiritual leadership — is very appropriate for this time in the Church when one of the most pressing problems facing Catholicism may be the quality of its spiritual leadership in the face of seemingly deteriorating religious devotion and faith, community cooperation, and generosity and concern for the poor. 

Surely, most of us already know that organized religion has lost its power to impose unquestioned rules on the behavior of its members. No amount of ranting and raving from us about how we ought to be listened to and no number of new editions of the rulebooks will fix this. Such fits are simply counter-productive, and the Church is up to its ears in new rulebooks already. 

Instead of blaming ourselves for our own lack of skills in persuasion, and a lack of dynamism in the Church’s structures for evangelization in changing the present cultural climate, we persist in our inclination to blame the laity for their lack of faith and the culture for its “secularism” and “moral relativism.” 

Instead of blaming others, the better approach might just be for us to start owning the fact that the real problem may be our own inability to influence others. Instead of looking around for a solution, maybe we should look within. Designated spiritual leaders must become real spiritual leaders. In a society in which being a consumer is a primary self-definition, priests must be good and good at what they do. Today they have to know how to spark imagination and “sell” what we have to offer. The People of God already know that God wants them to become holy. The problem is that many of them don’t know how to become holy and many of us don’t know how to lead them there! 

It is not enough, according to our mission and ministry, for a parish priest to be personally holy; he also needs to have the skills to lead others to holiness. As I tell my deacon class every year, their goal is not just to be sure that the golden light of holiness shines from their rectories. Their goal is to be sure that the golden light of holiness shines from the homes in their parishes! 

Spiritual Leadership Defined 

Priests my age and older have, no doubt, already discovered the sobering fact that handing over the administrative duties of the parish to others does not mean that all of a sudden we are possessed with extraordinary spiritual leadership skills. It is much easier to balance a budget or build a parish hall than it is to inspire a congregation to move to a deeper level of discipleship! Even our ordinations alone do not make us instant “spiritual leaders.” I define “spiritual leadership” as “the ability to influence another through invitation, persuasion and example to move from where they are to where God wants them to be,” especially through the skillful use of the pulpit. 

When it comes to spiritual leadership from the pulpit, the words of a famous Protestant preacher, Dwight Moody, may say it best. “The best way to revive a church is to build a fire in the pulpit.” There is no better place for a priest to lead spiritually than from the pulpit, yet many parish priests squander this golden opportunity each and every week, either by being unprepared or by being trivial. If a priest has the burning desire to lead people spiritually, he must claim his pulpit and see parish preaching as “group spiritual direction from the pulpit.” 

Most people have heard of the term “bully pulpit.” This term stems from President Theodore Roosevelt’s reference to the White House as a “bully pulpit,” a terrific platform from which to present his political ideas. Roosevelt often used the word “bully” as an adjective meaning “superb” or “wonderful.” 

Priests have bully pulpits, terrific platforms from which they can mold, form and lead the People of God. One can imagine how much the Church would change for the better if priests would only claim their pulpits with passion. Catholic pulpits are indeed buried treasures waiting to be claimed. It is from there, mainly, that priests, especially because of their primary task, can most effectively lead spiritually. 

The pastor, most of all, must claim his pulpit by committing himself personally to dynamic preaching as well as to overseeing and planning the preaching ministry of the parish. It is his job to work closely with and guide associate pastors and deacons with a deliberate and coherent plan of action. It is the pastor’s role to ask, “Where do we want to lead this congregation and what do we do to get there?” 

Primary Duty 

If the primary duty of priests is to proclaim the Gospel, then to whom much is given, much is expected. Failing to appreciate the power of the Word and squandering the bully pulpits entrusted to them has to be among the biggest sins parish priests can commit because it is their primary duty. 

If the primary duty of priests is to preach, then it is easier said than done! Even though Vatican Council II made this decree in 1965, ask any honest Catholic 44 years later and they will tell you that priests are still failing in their primary duty. Because of it, Catholics are now crossing parish and diocesan boundaries looking for solid spiritual food and, when they fail to find it, they leave us to join those independent mega-churches that are springing up all over the country and sucking people out of our parishes at an alarming rate. 

To whom do we preach? Presbyterorum Ordinis, No. 4, is clear when it says that we have a duty to preach the word of God to all — unbeliever and believer alike. We need, therefore, to get over the idea that our preaching is limited to those who show up on Sunday. There are at least four distinct groups to whom we are called to preach. We are indeed called to preach to all of the following: 


These families and or individuals rarely miss Mass, are present at most parish functions, take advantage of opportunities for faith formation, participate in the social ministries of the parish and support the parish financially. 


This group has been called “the second largest denomination in the country.” They may still be registered members of the parish, but attend Mass infrequently. Some of them may even send their children to sacramental preparation or religious education. When asked, they may identify themselves as “Catholics,” having been “raised Catholic” or as “former Catholics.” Among this group, we find: 

THE MAD — those who describe themselves as having been hurt, abused, or neglected by clergy or other church workers. 

THE SAD — those “separated” from the Church because of marriage, divorce, sexual orientation or doctrinal issues. Typically, these people feel a sense of loss. 

THE IGNORED — those who stay away because they do not feel accepted, do not feel that they fit in or do not see other minorities like themselves. 

THE BORED — those who have no particular complaint with the Church, but who have grown weaker in the practice of the faith over the years or may not have been strong to begin with. 


Those in this group are believers who identify with another faith tradition. Their attitudes toward Catholics vary from outright hostility and suspicion to that of interest and respect. This group is especially important because of the number of inter-religious marriages. 


These people do not identify with any organized religion. They describe themselves as “not interested in religion,” “spiritual, but not religious,” or “agnostics.” 

The preacher’s task of bringing the Good News to all these groups is an awesome responsibility. The one place where most of these people assemble at points throughout the year is right in front of the pulpit. For effective spiritual leadership, various approaches and strategies will be required from the pulpit to connect to each group. TP 

FATHER KNOTT, a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, is founding director of the Institute for Priests and Presbyterates. Ordained in 1970, he served his archdiocese as a home missionary, country pastor, cathedral rector and vocation director. Besides being the director of the Institute, he is a weekend campus minister at Bellarmine University, Louisville, Ky., and writes a weekly column for his diocesan paper, The Record.